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2012 was one of the biggest M&A years for recruiting technology: Kenexa bought by IBM, Taleo by Oracle, SuccessFactors by SAP, etc. With all the consolidation and innovation, however, it’s ironic that one major source of talent acquisition remains stubbornly resistant to change: the way companies find, communicate and work with search firms. (more…)

Sometimes I’m asked about the graphic of sheep on my website. Sheep will follow other sheep — regardless of the danger — and the flash analogizes the importance of breaking the herd mentality. A great example of herd mentality is an event at many rodeos called Mutton Bustin. There is a sheep held in the middle of the arena whose sole purpose is to get the other sheep to run to it. This is one of the best examples of herd behavior I know.

When it comes to recruiting and hiring processes many recruiting leaders look at the hiring practices of successful companies and assume the same will work for them. We often hear about successful companies like Google that are able to attract great talent. Many of us hear this and immediately want to emulate their hiring process. Is this an effective strategy?

Will Deep Pockets Get You the Best Recruiters?

Jessica Stillman wrote an article for Inc.com in March 2012. She interviewed Michael Junge, a recruiter who had been with Google for about 13 months at the time of the printing.

She suggested that because Google’s founders have deep pockets that they are able to hire the best recruiters. Having deep pockets certainly helps when it comes to attracting and hiring top talent; however, having deep pockets is neither indicative of nor directly related to your ability to hire the finest recruiters.

Many companies have challenges hiring great recruiters. My experience shows me this is because great third-party recruiters (and even some not so great ones) are making too much money. Companies tend not to pay their recruiters at this level; therefore, they are not able to attract the best recruiters.

Before everyone bites my head off, let me say that I know there are some wonderful recruiters in the corporate world. Some of these recruiters are getting a raw deal. I also know that the failure of some recruiters in corporate America has a lot to do a multitude of factors, which include workload, support, and their current hiring processes. I will admit that I wonder about recruiters in the corporate world who originally came from the third-party world; I wonder about their past success in the agency world.

Real-life Example

At one time I considered making a move into corporate recruiting. I was getting a bit bored and restless and thought I might try something different — a new challenge. I interviewed with a company whose headquarters are in the Denver metro area not far from my home. They told me they were looking for a highly experienced “rainmaker” to do all their VP and above recruiting: to attract and hire very high-end, high-earning employees. They had been using one of the well-known retained firms and were tired of paying exorbitant fees. The execs I met with (especially one of the sales VPs) were selling the job pretty hard.

When we got to the point of talking money I told the chief talent officer that I needed a base of $100,000 and an on target earnings of $220,000 plus accelerators or bonuses on top of that. Bottom line was I didn’t want to be capped. As soon as I closed my mouth he looked at me like a deer in headlights. He couldn’t believe I wanted that much money. They were paying all the employees this position was going to hire for that much or more, so why wouldn’t they pay the “rainmaker” the same? I suppose they figured they could hire rainmakers and pay them bubkis?

Will Google’s Methods Work for You 

Junge gave five tips tailored to small companies looking to hire the best and brightest. He did this to help level the playing field for young companies without a lot of money in their search for top talent. All five of these suggestions are great advice, but they don’t consider the recruiters, recruiting leaders, hiring managers, current talent strategy, and most importantly if talent strategy is aligned to business strategy.

  1. Recognize the inherent strengths of the amateurJunge says that “resumes are an imperfect reflection of the people they represent.” He couldn’t be more correct. The problem is that if a company is not totally aligned in its talent strategy and the managers aren’t in line with the fact that there are candidates whose resumes may not “look” exactly like they think they should, they won’t get past the recruiter. Recognize an applicant’s strengths, but if your people aren’t aligned with this the point is moot
  2. Be a language detective. Carefully pay attention to a candidates’ use of language; for example, first vs. third person and active vs. passive language. This is also great advice, but there are many exceptional interviewers who can fake this successfully. I’ll never forget a candidate I knew of (I never represented him) who got a job with a great company while still working at his other company. He double dipped for at least three months before he got caught.
  3. Make being small work for you. This is the only one of his suggestions that I don’t like. It assumes candidates don’t want to work for small companies. I recruited for some wonderful startups and rarely had trouble putting in the best talent. They had a compelling story, a real product, great leadership, great comp, etc. If a company tried to engage me that couldn’t make a compelling case to me, I just didn’t take on the search. Junge is absolutely correct in his assessment of needing a clear picture of the talent you need, but there is far more to that process than is suggested.
  4. Don’t believe the social media hype. Junge doesn’t believe in social media as a serious tool for recruiting, aside from LinkedIn. Agreed, and for anyone who believes that social media is the future of recruiting I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn. LinkedIn is the most valuable tool and is quite effective when used properly, but it is not going to solve all your recruiting issues. The concern that arises around social media and its effectiveness in recruiting is number of recruiters using/relying on social media as their primary method of recruiting. If this is the case, recruiters will need to be trained on methods that “old timers” like me use.
  5. Swap key words for attributes. Look for attributes, not key words on resumes. I love this! The problem you can encounter is what I wrote about alignment above.

The final point in the article suggests you look at how much fun the candidate is having in the hiring process. Yes, the candidate should be enjoying the experience, but many companies have recruiting and hiring processes that leave candidates feeling lousy about the company and make it next to impossible for a candidate to fake it.

Hiring is Not Simple — Recruiting is Complex — There is NO Panacea

All the strategies Junge lists are effective, but not alone. Hiring is not simple. Hiring takes commitment, alignment, partnership, quality recruiters, etc. You need to know what skills and abilities you need, what it takes to be successful in your culture, what psychometric drivers candidates possess, and have an interview process that works. The entire organization needs to be aligned and bought in to the recruiting and hiring process.

There are no shortcuts when it comes to effective recruiting. You need to have a clear picture of where you want to go and what you need to do to get there. Recruiting processes can be complex and appear daunting, but the time and effort you put into it will pay you back handsomely.

Bullhorn, the software company that powers much of the staffing and SMB recruiting market, has been acquired by Vista Equity Partners. The Boston-based tech firm announced the deal this morning.

The financial terms were not made public; however, sources, including TechCrunch, said the sales price was in the “low nine-figures.” That would be a near tripling of the company’s valuation since 2008 when it got a $26 million VC fund investment.

“It’s a big day here,” CEO and founder Art Papas said. “The employees are really pumped up.” There are two reasons for the excitement, Papas said. Because of stock options, many employees will see a financial windfall, but as important, he added, is that Bullhorn will remain independent and growing.

“I work with some incredible people. And with this acquisition, no one is leaving. Just the contrary, we’ll be growing.”

In the last several months, Bullhorn has added 40 employees and now has 201. “We are continuing to staff up,” he said, with plans to grow geographically. Three years ago, in the midst of the worst of the recession, Bullhorn opened an office in the United Kingdom, which, Papas said, “turned out to be one of the best things we’ve done. We’re going to continue to expand.”

The company will also expand its product development, especially in areas that complement its core, ATS service, including CRM, as well as continued enhancement of its mobile provisioning. Bullhorn Reach, the company’s successful freemium social media service, will also see more development.

Declining to get into details, Papas said Bullhorn would also be looking at acquisitions, especially companies with products geared to the third-party-recruiting market.

Where companies like Taleo (acquired by Oracle)SuccessFactors (acquired by SAP), and the public and still independent Kenexa, among others, have long focused on the enterprise and corporate markets, Bullhorn has concentrated on search firms, smaller recruiting agencies, and independent recruiters.

From its founding in 1999, the company’s products have been SaaS based, an approach that meant recruiters could begin using the software almost immediately, without the need for in-house or other technical help. SaaS, also often referred to as cloud computing, has become the hot trend now, driving HR technology companies to develop a cloud capability. That’s one of the major drivers of the recent string of acquisitions and why SAP paid a substantial premium to the all-SaaS SuccessFactors.

Papas attributed Bullhorn’s success — 40% revenue growth and 400 new clients last year — to its SaaS provisioning. SaaS, he says, is something of an equalizer. “If I’m a small business, I can get the same service as Kelly.”

Kelly, and Randstad, one of the largest staffing firms in the world, are both Bullhorn customers. In all, the company reports it has some 12,000 clients with over 100,000 staffing and recruiting professionals across 126 countries using the system. The company has made the Deloitte Technology Fast 500, the Inc. 5000, and the Boston Business Journal Pacesetters.

While all eyes last week were focused on the disappointing March job numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the report contained a curious blip that might be nothing more than a statistical aberration. Or it could be an early signal of employment trouble ahead.

The usually robust growth in temp jobs took a breather in March. Temp jobs dipped by 7,500 during the month, the first time since June the monthly employment report registered a decline. Out of a temp workforce of some 2.5 million, the drop is practically unnoticeable. But considering that staffing jobs grew by 91,300 in January and February, a reduction of any size is significant.

Recent history is also a factor. Looking at April 2011, the monthly jobs report said 251,000 jobs were created, the biggest rise since the census hiring of 12 months earlier. But that same report also showed the first decline in temp jobs in 19 months. Then in May, the economy added a mere 54,000 jobs. It was months before the pace of hiring returned to what it was in the first quarter of the year when 662,000 jobs were created.

Cautious employers can be forgiven therefore if they react as if last week’s Labor Department report were an omen.

Here, though, is where reading the economic tea leaves gets dicey: There were 8 percent more temp and contract jobs in March than a year ago. That’s well ahead of the overall jobs growth rate, which, in a year-over-year comparison comes to just under 1.4 percent. And then there’s the non-seasonally adjusted numbers to consider. While the headlines and most economists focus on the seasonally adjusted numbers, the U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics issues a second set of numbers that are the raw results of its job counts. (A detailed explanation of the differences between the two is available here. The short version is that the adjustment removes some of the effects of seasonal events like weather, and holidays, and school years from the numbers.)

Using the unadjusted numbers, the staffing industry added 29,400 jobs in March. Year-over-year, the increase in temp and contract staffing hit 8.5 percent. For comparison, the unadjusted numbers put the total new jobs count at 81,100 last month.

“For the most part, staffing firms continued to see healthy demand in March, as was reflected by the nonseasonally adjusted BLS employment numbers,” says Richard Wahlquist, president and chief executive officer of the American Staffing Association. “In the current environment, businesses are understandably cautious about when and how to add additional flexible and permanent staff.”

While temp hiring is one of the early indicators of a job recovery, and the pace of temp hiring offers insights into what the future may hold, other signs offer a little more optimistic view than does a single month of data. Before last week’s report, CareerBuilder offered an upbeat view of employment in the current quarter. After surveying some 2,300 HR professionals and hiring managers, CareerBuilder says 30 percent of employers plan to increase their full-time, permanent workforce. Even more — 34 percent — expect they’ll bring on more temps and contract workers.

In Q1, 37 percent of employers hired more temps, an eight-point increase over the 29 percent who hired temps in Q1 last year. The company also says 31 percent of employers report not being to find qualified employees to fill open jobs. That’s up from the 24 percent who said that last year.

Two other bits of government recruiting industry data are worth noting. One is the month-to-month count of workers employed in executive search; the other is the count of those working at placement agencies. Counted in this latter category are employees of chauffeur services, nurse registries, employment firms, state job service offices, casting agencies, and the like.

Unlike staffing hires, the changes in these industry segments are of dubious predictive value. However, the number of workers employed in both categories has been going up. In February, there were 31,500 workers employed by search firms. That’s 700 more than the average for all of last year. (The data for these sectors runs a month behind the national jobs numbers.)

The challenge in looking at employment in search firms is to decide how much of the change is impacted by corporate in-sourcing of search, versus economic belt-tightening, versus business expansion. In that light, it probably is of significance to note there are more jobs at executive search firms today than at almost any other time in the last 10 years. From that, it seems safe to say that whatever trend there is for corporations to in-source their executive and other hard-to-fill positions, it hasn’t impacted search firms as much as some thought.

Placement agencies have also added workers, though divining the significance is tricky because some placement services — government offices, for instance — added workers to assist the unemployed as the economy was tanking. That said, there is evidence that employment in this category does move in some rhythm with general economic conditions. In 2007, just before the official start of the recession, there were an average of 277,400 workers. Two years later, the average fell to 200,200 workers.

Jobs began returning early in 2010 and the growth continued in all but two months of last year. As of February, there were 240,800 workers employed in the employment placement agencies category.

The holiday season is so very counterintuitive. Its many traditions demand that we rush around to get everything done in time, yet it also calls upon us to pause and reflect. Whenever I stop for a moment to examine the deeper meaning in our shared purpose as recruiters, I am humbled by the random acts of courage we witness every day in the candidates that we serve. The bravery may be stark and obvious as they endure the loss of a job, a home, or a loved one. Or it may be subtle and just as poignant as they suffer the slights and indignities that are simply part of being a job applicant today. The very act of becoming a candidate tests one’s mettle in profound ways. So, this holiday season let us remember the Hero’s Journey.

Within each of us, in the collective unconscious, there lies a hero — an archetype that Swiss Psychiatrist Carl Jung believed lies dormant until called to action. Studying world mythology, Joseph Campbell built upon Jung’s work, discovering that no matter what the myth, a hero’s journey remains the same. All heroes must leave what is familiar, venture forth, do battle, and then return, forever changed, with new talents and gifts to share. For those of us in talent acquisition, that means we deal with something far more important than recruiting metrics and candidate tracking systems: with each and every recruiting engagement, we bear witness to the hero’s journey.

Each senior executive, each technologist, each professional in some way is forever changed by his or her search for a new opportunity. If that involves unemployment, and even homelessness, the bravery and determination required of our hero is the stuff of which legends (and movies) are made.

The film The Pursuit of Happiness captures that heroism. Will Smith and his son Jaden star in the true story of Chris Gardner, a San Francisco salesman who rises above homelessness and poverty to become a Wall Street legend. The movie reminds me that we need to remember we are not always aware of the random acts of courage required of the candidates with whom we interact every day.

The Hero’s Journey is a story lives in the subconscious — one that speaks to us, that moves us, and inspires us as human beings. As recruiters, we would do well to reexamine the recruiting lifecycle to discover the archetypal phases of the Hero’s Journey contained within. A candidate’s subconscious may influence his actions and decision-making as much as conscious reason. To start, we need to learn to recognize the classic markers of the epic tale. The story always begins in the ordinary world, until something triggers the first phase: departure.


The Call to Adventure: For executive search and recruiting, the call to adventure comes when a candidate first discovers that the ordinary world at work is going to change. It may be that an executive has learned that his company has been acquired or is going through a massive reorganization. It may be that the boss who hired him has left, or that there are rumors of impending layoffs. It may be increasing unemployment or outsourcing of his work. Whatever the call, the effect is the same; the landscape has changed. The Hero’s Journey has begun.

Refusal of the Quest: The next step is often refusal to heed the call. Candidates may not be ready to leave their current roles out of a sense of duty or obligation. They may fear leaving what has been so familiar. They may worry that they simply won’t measure up in their next place of employment. And so the candidate stays, as other workers depart.

Supernatural Aid. Once the hero has committed to the quest, a magical guide or helper appears — cue the recruiter. The most gifted search consultants naturally assume a Sherpa-like role, reassuring candidates as they make the decision to begin the journey. In recruiting, it may simply mean that we convince a passive candidate to consider the extraordinary opportunity that lies beyond the four walls of their current employer and to agree to exploratory conversations.

The Crossing of the First Threshold. As supernatural guides, recruiters help usher candidates across the threshold to enter the world of the unknown. The candidate submits his resume, reviews a job description, and journeys into the field of adventure for rounds of interviews with your team. In doing so, he leaves behind the employer that is familiar, and ventures into a strange and dangerous place — your company — because the rules of your corporate culture are not yet known.

The Belly of the Whale. This is the final separation from the hero’s known world and former self. Often it is a dark, unknown, or frightening experience to triggers a metamorphosis. They may enter the belly of the beast when they are handed a pink slip or are fired. It may be simply painful recognition that there is no future where they currently work and that they are undervalued. There is no going back.

The second phase of the hero’s journey is that of initiation. Our hero has left what was familiar and finds himself a stranger in a strange land. He has things to learn about himself and about his new world.


The Road of Trials. Candidates, particularly those who are actively looking, experience a series of tests and ordeals that force them to undergo a transformation. Whether it is failing to obtain interviews or failing to obtain an offer after being interviewed. In The Pursuit of Happiness the test is being unable to show up for an interview properly dressed. Still he shows up.

The Meeting with the Goddess. The meeting with the goddess represents a time when the candidate experiences unconditional love. That would be the moment we introduce the perfect candidate to the perfect opportunity — the moment the hiring manager and applicant each recognize they have found “the one.” The opportunity is not “just a job,” but rather a calling that embraces all that we are meant to be.

Woman as Temptress. Inevitably, a counteroffer is made by the candidate’s employer or another company vies for your perfect candidate, tempting him or her to stray from the quest. But while the compensation package is impressive, it is more a material temptation. It lacks a spiritual connection with the work. Why did it take the current employer so long to realize the candidate was worth keeping?

Atonement with the Father. The candidate seeks the blessing of his boss or someone with incredible power. It doesn’t have to be male. In fact, in recruiting, candidates often seek the atonement of their spouses who must sign off on the decision. These are delicate conversations for families as they consider whether they wish to be uprooted yet again, only to leave friends and their community behind.

Apotheosis. An offer is being readied and the candidate is deified, entering a state of divine knowledge and bliss. This is also a period or rest and fulfillment in preparation for the return home to a new workplace.

The Ultimate Boon. The candidate receives an offer and achieves what he set out to accomplish on his quest. All of the steps up until now have prepared the executive for this transcendent moment. In other words, jackpot!

The third and final phase of the journey is the return. It represents a coming home when there is no coming home. It will never be the same because the hero is not the same. He has been transformed.

The Return

Refusal of the Return. The candidate refuses the offer, at least initially. Either it is a negotiating tactic or it is a reluctance to return to office life and all the stresses that come with it. It is intoxicating to be courted. It is quite another thing to commit to one’s next employer and the challenges the new role brings.

The Magic Flight. Sometimes it is difficult and even dangerous for candidates to escape with offer in hand. Current employers may threaten legal action, reminding candidates of non-compete obligations and other contractual ties that bind. Often, they must struggle to break free.

Rescue from Without. Sometimes the candidate needs guides and assistants to help them return home to their new place of work. In addition to the executive search consultant or recruiter, the dream team may also include an employment lawyer, a CPA, as well as a realtor and relocation expert. For proper onboarding, the worker may be assigned a mentor and executive coach.

The Crossing of the Return Threshold. The day the candidate becomes an employee, the start date — that is moment the Hero crosses the threshold. To complete this step successfully, the Hero must remember all that he or she has learned on the journey. The Hero must harness that wisdom on the job and then to share those insights with the rest of the world – not an easy thing to do.

Freedom to Live. It is now a year or two later, and the candidate has achieved mastery on the job. He no longer fears death by downsizing, so he is free to live. The hero’s journey is complete, at least until the next recruiter calls.

I remain humbled by the power those of us in executive search and recruiting hold to transform the lives of the candidates we touch and of their families for generations. We are the door through which an executive or professional must pass for a working wage or wealth creation. In large part, we determine who gets in and who does not, decisions that shape the futures of those with whom we interact virtually every day. It is so easy to take that for granted, but I try never to take it for granted because our smallest actions have the most profound effects on people who just as easily could be you or me.

So often, in so many ways, our candidates are legendary. A hero is defined is someone who is admired and idealized for courage, outstanding achievements and noble qualities. Each and every day, let us remember the hero … and then, let’s recruit him.

Staffing agencies struggle to differentiate their brand message and uniqueness in a sea of competition. In my dealings with staffing agencies, their pitches all begin to sound the same, but they also recognize that the sheer volume of competitors makes it difficult to sound different, if they truly are. In most local markets there are a handful of solid players and a larger number of peripheral staffing firms that tend to create the “noise” (read: sales calls). Here are some thoughts on being a top staffing agency player in your market.

Be different. I harked on this point a couple of months ago, but I challenge any staffing agency that wants to be great to clearly communicate their compelling business case. Talk about your recruiting process, client relations, local market connections, and client successes.

Don’t be a cheesy sales guy and don’t treat your own recruiters poorly. I know a lot of staffing agency recruiters, and I shy away from vendors that treat their recruiters like dirt (this also drives high turnover and lowers the professionalism bar for all recruiters). Some vendors may say how they run their businesses is none of my business and I should judge them simply on candidates hired. And in response, I will say that how you treat your people speaks volumes about how you are different/better.

Understand your competition and how they do business. As an extension to my previous point, I think staffing firms are so entrenched in the daily operation of their own business that they don’t take the time to understand the competitive landscape. Are your competitors dropping the ball with other clients? What are they doing to build business and break into new accounts you’d like to be in? I think that the typical staffing agency only has a superficial understanding of their competitors and then tries to sell against these perceived weaknesses (for example, I hear “we don’t just send you a bunch of resumes like everyone else” a lot).

For the savvy staffing agency, this in-depth knowledge of the competitive landscape should provide you with worlds of opportunity. The truly great vendors know their competition, know their recruiters, and know their challenges and strengths. This knowledge should provide an agency information on where business development opportunities lie in the market. As a corporate recruiter this information can provide me with much-needed insight into the current talent pool and where my recruiting headaches may soon lie ahead.

Too much business development is done with the “give-us-a-shot” approach. When I wrote my previous article several agency recruiters reached out to me and said, “How will you know that I’m different without giving me a shot at a tough requisition?” While I appreciate their effort, I can’t simultaneously engage a lot of vendors with this request. My world would be consumed with just managing vendors and their candidates.

Here’s a business development suggestion: Go to a client where you’ve had solid success and ask them to either A: Make a call on your behalf (I know that’s a huge stretch but I’ve done it before), OR B: Ask if you can use their name and success story when calling into another company. Strong relationships with clients allow this level of imposition. Lastly, don’t be everything to everybody. One issue I’ve seen with vendors is that they contract with every company in town. In the staffing business I know that means more sales, but it also limits your ability to recruit talent away from my competition.

Maybe there is a need for this many vendors. Ultimately I know the answer to this question is dictated by the market. If there were truly too many staffing agencies, natural selection would weed out those that are less successful. This is an effect we saw during the Great Recession. Some staffing agencies closed up shop while others were able to stay in business and make it through a couple of tumultuous years. However, the handful of excellent staffing firms drown in a sea of mediocrity.

The few solid staffing firms have a reputation built on years of experience, consistency of internal staff, and relationships built with hiring managers and human resources. As a result, a lot of their business development comes when a trusted hiring manager moves to a new company. This person becomes a strong internal champion helping introduce the agency to a new client.

Maybe they are all the same. In consideration of this article’s content, maybe we need to consider this reality — the vast majority of staffing firms are the same. Their sales pitches sound the same and their recruiting approaches are pretty similar, so maybe the best staffing firms simply have the best salespeople.

Perhaps it’s time for staffing firms to admit this reality of sameness and let hiring mangers work with the salespeople they like the most (or take them to coffee the most or get them football tickets, etc). What if success is truly predicated by luck and “dialing for dollars”? If this were the case, then treating vendors as a commodity is the only reasonable course of action (And further reason for the proliferation of vendor management systems).

In closing, I will be the first to state that I don’t know if there are too many staffing firms. At first pass, my opinion seems to be yes. I get way too many solicitation calls for the same service to think otherwise; however, the reality of the market will really bear out whether your local market can absorb new players and will weed out others.

Bravo is airing a one-hour special tonight that may do for executive headhunting what Simon Cowell did for talent shows.

In the space of 60 minutes (commercials included), Wendy Doulton dispenses such bits of advice to her six-figure job candidates as “You need to lose the cleavage,” and “You make me feel like taking a nap.”

Born in the U.S., educated in London, Doulton’s blunt, unvarnished advice is delivered, in a clipped British accent. “A résumé should be like a skirt,” she declares. “Long enough to cover the basics, short enough to keep them interested.”

Doulton’s delivery may be all Cowell, and her bedside manner runs more to Gregory House than Marcus Welby, but she gets results. She manages the boutique headhunting firm she founded in Hollywood Katalyst Career Group, after stints as head of talent acquisition at Yahoo Media Group, and at DreamWorksSKG.

Her client list includes all the big names; Fox, Google, Amazon, Discovery, VEOH Networks, and Grey Advertising, are just a sample.

The aptly named show, “The Headhuntress,” includes what amounts to a makeover of two job seekers. One prattles on about astrology. The other admits to having appeared in porn films. Doulton turns them into candidates you would be proud to present.

Whether the show will become a Bravo series isn’t clear. Maybe it depends on how well the “interview” goes, something we could find out by monitoring #headhuntress on Twitter. Doulton will be taking questions and feedback during the broadcast tonight at that hashtag. Follow the show at theheadhuntress.

She’ll also join Jessica Miller-Merrell of “Blogging4Jobs” at #JobHuntChat at 10 p.m. ET tonight to answer job-seeker questions.

Despite a slow economy, recruiting has picked up over the past year. Talent is hard to find in some segments, and corporate leaders talk about bringing “agency skills” to their recruiting teams. What they mean is they’d like to add the executive recruiting skill set to their existing staff. So, they hire a recruiter with an agency background.

On its face, this would seem to make sense. But it rarely works. After a while, it becomes clear that things aren’t working out as planned. The new hire either does what the other staff are doing (abandoning their agency skill set), or they quietly leave.

It’s an old story: the agency recruiter comes into an established department overseen by HR, replete with processes, advertising budgets, and clear lines of authority. Internal company recruiters, especially those working for larger employers, are adept at marketing jobs designed around the company’s brand and managed through an ATS. There are teams, matrixed relationships, and lots of processes governing recruiters. The goal here is to create reliable, repeatable service levels.

Square Pegs in Round Holes

Agency recruiters find themselves wedged into an environment which is the exact opposite of the agency model — it relies on advertising, has much higher req loads, and is a place where process trumps results. They quickly realize they have to get with the program to fill so many requisitions. This is a situation where the agency skills are not much use. The agency recruiter who wants to stay in a corporate role learns they cannot afford to use agency skills unless they have a shorter requisition list, so they can work them intensely.

Recruiters who learned their trade at a company with a strong brand never really learned to recruit. The brand does the heavy lifting. The corporate recruiter runs a different game, emphasizing ads, job distribution, and SEO, instead of digging for candidates, because its the most efficient way to meet their needs. Anyone wanting to stay will do the same. So the agency skill set falls by the wayside.

Others take a different path.

Many agency recruiters hired into corporate roles know they are talented, and that their agency skills are valuable. For them, it’s not about fitting in, but using these talents. These people are often more innovative, and more resourceful. They are results-oriented, and approach recruiting as a business function (instead of an HR function). Those invited to join a corporate recruiting team may see a great opportunity to make a difference by adding their skills to the mix.

When their approach to recruiting butts up against layers of bureaucracy, they realize they’re in a land where process and predictability are prized over results. It’s more important to ensure that the process shows that every candidate was treated equally than to get a hire. Mediocrity is acceptable, and they are handcuffed with no way to use their skills. In short, their creative, aggressive strengths are at odds with an HR culture. The bottom line realization is that if you’re really talented, you’ll leave.

Corporate recruiting runs on programs and processes. Agencies succeed because they put on a pirate hat and exploit opportunities. Pirates aren’t in for the 9-5 grind, an annual performance review, and 3% pay increase. They want to make something happen. They are resourcefulness and occasionally bold. This isn’t very HR.

We owe much credit to “skills-based” hiring, where the personality and cultural characteristics are secondary to a skill set. Most companies say they look at skills first, then fit. But if true, they probably wouldn’t hire an agency recruiter into a corporate role. The talents that drive success in an agency clash with most corporate cultures. Agency work is best done by putting on a pirate hat and making something happen. Too many rules stifle creativity, and the orderliness of corporate recruiting programs are not conducive to such behavior. Indeed, companies hire executive search firms for this very reason: they need a pirate but can’t afford to have one associated with their brand. So they contract an outside vendor and gain the skills while sparing the brand.

… the last two candidates you have sent me are terrible! The agreement you sent me prior to engaging in this search requires me to pay you 25% of the individual’s first-year salary if I hire one of your presented candidates. In my case, that would be in the neighborhood of $17,000, which is a good sum of money.

I am feeling a little confused at the moment, as I was under the impression that you are to provide me the top 1% of talent available in the field of which I am seeking talent. Or, at least that is what you told me in your initial presentation of why we should use you.

Instead I opened both of the resumes you have sent me this morning, only to find the first individual, who has already applied to this position no less than eight times and we have already rejected, and the second individual has changed jobs more times in the past fiv years than runway models change outfits; am I to think this individual will stay with us any amount of time to learn our business and be a strong contributor?

When I signed up for this “executive search/recruiting” service, I was under the impression that you were going to bring me the best of the best, a game changer or an “A” player who can bring significant value and contributions to my business unit. But all I see here are average professionals and not the caliber that warrants me paying you $17,000.

I know it’s your business on how you operate, but I feel as if I need to share some suggestions for you and for what I really need in a search partner…

  • Executive search is a science that requires patience. You don’t have to fire me every resume in the city on day one of the position being open. Take your time and bring me your top 3-4 high quality individuals from which I can make a selection.
  • How do you know what I really need? All you asked for was a job description. You never once asked me what was/is important, what the key functions to be performed are, the type of individual that will fit in our group, why someone should take a job here, etc.
  • Quality means quality. If you are asking me to pay you 25% of one’s first-year salary, this person better be worth my investment.
  • Please follow up with me — after you sent me 20+ non-qualified resumes on day one, it was almost two weeks since I heard from you. I wasn’t sure if you were still engaged on my search or if I was to even expect another resume.
  • Don’t circumvent the process. We started working together on Day 1 and next thing I know you are pinging my boss with other candidates and topics. This makes me look bad.

Hope these few pointers help you in the future, but at this time we are going to take this search in house and handle it ourselves.

Good luck,

Mr. Hiring Manager

Spring 2010 conference-logoAt the ERE Expo in San Diego, March 15-17, 2010, I’ll be describing what it takes to be a true corporate headhunter. This is a recruiter who can go head to head with his or her external rivals without compromising quality of hire or time to fill. To pull it off though, you’ll have to break some company rules and break from tradition. In the process you will probably aggravate your comp, compliance, legal, and I/O departments, at least at first. Hopefully, your recruiting manager will intercede and act as a buffer as you plow ahead making a positive contribution.

Before you know it, your hiring managers will be carrying you on their shoulders as you begin to consistently deliver far better candidates than your external rivals. Without unnecessary and contrived restraints you’ll also be finding more diverse candidates, passing every EEO and OFCCP audit and eliminating every wrongful hiring or discharge lawsuit. Within a year even the comp, I/O, and compliance departments will be singing your praise as you bring in more top performers without breaking the compensation budget. (The legal department might be a bit smaller though, since it will have less to do.)

Now to get started with my confession, which will soon become yours, you’ll need to get a sense of the hiring manager support you’ll soon be getting. As an example, here’s an email we just received from a former hiring manager client:

Many years ago Lou hosted an offsite manager event for Synaptics. A few months later I left Synaptics to found a startup with two good friends.It was a fantastic opportunity to take the Adler approach and apply it to a company on day one. I think Lou would be proud to know how much of an impact he has had on our organization four years later.

(Note: Synaptics is a major developer of touchpad technology, and the person’s new company is a well-known, rapidly growing social networking company.)

With this as a backdrop, here’s the short version of my confession, as to how I transformed from being a corporate recruiter into a more successful corporate headhunter. (Caution: go slowly as you try this out. This is only an overview. I’ll provide the longer version and more of the tactics at the 2010 Spring ERE Expo.):

  1. I stopped using traditional job descriptions when taking an assignment from a hiring manager. Instead I now find out what the person needs to do to ace the performance review. These are the same performance objectives we provide to our new hires during the onboarding process, so it made sense to use the same approach when defining the new job. Also, by clarifying job objectives up- ront we get buy-in from the hiring manager, the interviewing team, and the candidates before the person is hired. This list of performance objectives is called a performance profile.
  2. I don’t allow candidates to decide if they’re interested in the job. Instead I determine if I’m interested in them. To pull this off, you need to be a bit vague about the job, move a bit slower, and get the candidate to describe his or her background first. If you determine the job represents a real career move, you can then reel the person in. If not, you can get some great referrals by asking the person about some of their LinkedIn connections.
  3. I dumped traditional behavioral event interviewing since it didn’t help me hire better people or more accurately assess the candidate’s ability to ace the performance review. To replace it, I now use two foolproof questions that enable me to defend my candidates from managers who are superficial interviewers, including those who still use behavioral event interviewing. One of the questions involves getting a very detailed example for each of the performance objectives listed on the performance profile. This generally takes 15-20 minutes each and we assign each interviewer a few to dig into. We then share this evidence in a formal debriefing session when evaluating the candidate. This process naturally eliminates the superficial thumbs-up or down voting process, by going narrow and deep rather than broad and shallow when conducting the interview.
  4. I don’t use KSAs (knowledge, skills, and abilities) and competency models when screening candidates. Part of the problem here is hiring the supposedly “well-qualified” person who doesn’t want to do the work required, or doesn’t fit too well with the hiring manager, team or company culture. The other problem is eliminating great people with a slightly different mix of KSAs who are demonstrated top performers. Many of these are vets and diverse candidates who have non-traditional backgrounds, so this opens up a new pool of top performers for us. For an example of how this works, just consider all of your best employees who get promoted internally or transferred to bigger jobs. They all have less of the K and S, and more of the A, M (motivation to do the work listed on the performance profile) and T (ability to work with and influence comparable team members). During the phone screen I have the candidates describe their most significant accomplishment. I then look at what KSAs, behaviors, and competencies they used to accomplish these results. Surprisingly, some of the best people have far less experience than would have been expected given their performance. These are the high performers I present to my clients.
  5. I don’t sell candidates on the job; I have them sell me. During the screening and interviewing process, I look for career gaps and voids between the candidate’s major accomplishments and the performance objectives listed on the performance profile (e.g., scope, span of control, budget, impact). I then ask candidates to tell me about comparable accomplishments they’ve handled that required them to stretch themselves. You learn a great deal about a candidate this way, and in the process of convincing me that their qualified, they’re also convincing themselves that this job offers a real career move. This not only makes the compensation less important, but it also allows the candidate to convince his or her friends and family that your position offers the most upside potential among other competing opportunities.

So I confess. I broke the rules. I had to. The old rules don’t work, and third-party recruiters don’t follow them, so I was at a huge disadvantage. So if you want to be competitive, you’ll need to become a corporate headhunter instead of a corporate recruiter. But be prepared to break the rules, too. In the process you’ll help your great managers hire more great people, and your average managers hire people stronger than themselves. Even better, the candidates who you hire will be more satisfied, have less turnover, fit extremely well with your culture, work better with their teammates, be more impactful, more productive, and have a great working relationship with their supervisor.

Isn’t it time to start confessing?